Ricoh bring the Space Age to camera design.

When Sputnik caught the USA on the back foot and ushered in the Space Age, the ensuing space race between the world’s two superpowers also inspired a whole new school of design which influenced everything from small household objects to airports.

Why is the Ricoh Auto 35 a Landmark Camera?

1: A rare example of Space Age design in a Japanese camera.

The User Experience

The Look

This point and shoot compact from 1960 is pure Space Age design; bold, bright, innovative and forward looking. Conventions on how a camera should look were established early on in the development of 35mm SLRs and rangefinders. Think silver chrome and leatherette. How the SLR should work best for the convenience of the photographer took longer to figure out. Asahi Pentax had pretty much nailed the blueprint of the modern SLR in 1957 with the original Pentax; beautiful design with a film advance lever on the top right with shutter release and shutter speed dial close dial. Almost all subsequent SLR makers followed this pattern. The compact point and shoot camera though was still an emerging design and this is perhaps why Ricoh chose this type of camera to make a statement; free from design conventions, as there simply weren’t any firmly established for this class of camera. It was early days.

Ricoh Auto 35

The Ricoh Auto 35 refuses to look back and takes no cues from SLR design. It is looking ahead. It’s two-tone brushed silver and smooth dark grey appearance and elementary shape of a short cylinder stuck to a rectangle seems uncompromising (very much like the Sigma DP1 from the digital age and another innovative camera) until you take note of the subtle rounded corners and the gentle tapering inwards from the front of the camera. There is no leatherette in sight. The lens cap is cream coloured. Black is almost completely absent, apart from the guide on the film door and a thin strip on the front of the lens which looks marvellous with silver lettering. The top of the camera is almost flush, apart from a flash attachment plate (which they could have omitted for me to improve the look further). Sixty years on, I think it still looks amazing.

Ricoh Auto 35 top view

The Feel

In later decades, the point and shoot camera all too often equated to budget prices and crappy build quality; a transient electronic tool not built for longevity. The Ricoh Auto 35 is anything but that. In the hand it is a solid camera. Nothing creaks. Nothing is loose. It appears to have an all metal body. The form and design of the camera encourages you to grip it by the sides rather than cradle it in your left palm. This is largely because the film advance and rewind are on the bottom of the camera. This wasn’t the first Ricoh to pioneer the trigger film advance though. That honour belongs to the Ricoh 500 of 1957.

Ricoh Auto 35 kit
The Ricoh Auto 35 came to me with all its original accessories in the original box. Even the guarantee is there.

In use

This unconventional trigger advance situated on the left of the underside works very well and is rapid. It is a very robust mechanism, which you push away from the camera body and to the left; quite unlike the Kowa H from another of my camera reviews.

Ricoh Auto 35 bottom
Bottom of Ricoh Auto 35 showing trigger wind film rewind and some friction wear.

Loading film and setting the speed

We aren’t finished with innovative features yet however. The camera has a simple way to set the correct films speed by setting an easily accessible ring on the lens barrel which has 5 numbers and M settting for flash. Using the film guide on the back of the camera I can see that my ISO 200 film needs to be set to 6 on the lens barrel. Talking of film, it is loaded upside down and winds on right to left.

Ricoh Auto 35 rear.
Rear of the Ricoh Auto 35 showing the film guide.

Metering and making an exposure

Metering is fully automatic, but there is a useful indicator in the bright frame viewfinder to check that a good exposure can be made. If the exposure needle appears in the red zone of a horizontal line at the bottom of the viewfinder, an underexposed image would be the result. Simple. Then all there is to do is frame the shot and use the large wing shaped shutter release lever attached to the lens barrel; super for usability too.

Ricoh Auto 35

One more touch of clever design to maintain the sleek lines of the camera is the strap attachment. There are no lugs sticking out. Instead we have a colour code plug and socket system that locks in the strap. Twist to unlock.

Ricoh Auto 35 viewfinder
Ricoh Auto 35 viewfinder showing white exposure needle. Stay out of the red!

This a fun, eye-catching camera with very good usability, but having a fixed focus lens, or UNI-FOCUS as the user guide calls it, can it take decent quality snaps? It was marketed as ‘chic’ and an ‘ideal accessory’, so did Ricoh put a dog of a lens in this body? Is it merely eye candy? Well, my answer is inconclusive. I exposed a roll of expired Kodacolor 200 in the camera and processed the film using Rodinal black and white developer. This obviously compromises the maximum possible fidelity of the image. I shall return to it in the future and treat it to some new black and white film.

Photographs Taken with the Ricoh Auto 35

Instruction manual at Mike Butkus’ site